It was too good to last. One of the things that led me back into the Labour Party last autumn was hearing Ed Miliband’s speech at the Labour Party Conference (or, to be more accurate, following it through a very dodgy Guardian live feed) and realising how far Labour’s rhetoric had changed – how more inclusive, more optimistic, more radical it had become since the Blair years. The removal of the egregious Liam Byrne from the DWP shadow was also a factor – since Byrne’s ideological statements about work and social security seemed to belong to another age. I wrote at the time that I was delighted NOT to hear Labour speakers talking about “hard working families”.
Unfortunately it seems I had been a little premature in assuming that particular dog-whistle had been silenced. Here is Ed Miliband on Twitter yesterday on George Osborne’s budget:
It seems to me essential that we end this particular line of rhetoric now, for several reasons:
It rests on a particular model of citizenship, defining those who matter as those who are economically active or who lead their lives in a partiuclar way. I have no doubt that Ed Miliband has no intention of leaving those who can’t find work, or are too sick to work, out of his vision; or that he wants to exclude those who live alone, those who have been estranged from their families, those for whom family life is a source of pain and abuse. But that is the effect of the rhetoric. It excludes rather than includes. We need to stop it.
It allows the Tories to frame the debate – because it means that we’re accepting their assumptions about citizenship and their rhetoric about social security. Tories want to use the language of work and family to divide, to set people against one another and to obscure realities about where power lies; we want to be a party that unites.
It misrepresents and undermines Labour’s strongest arguments around the cost of living crisis – in which we see real wages falling and a long-term shift in income from wage-earners to rentiers. Labour likes to talk about making work pay and being the party of work, but while we continue to talk about “hard working families” that’s no more than a hollow echo of Tory demonisation of those receiving social security. We can’t afford to let the debate about who gets the rewards of economic activity be hijacked in this way.
If we want “One Nation Labour” to be anything more than a slogan we cannot afford to fall into the “hard working families” trap. As someone once said, we can and must do better.